Ok, so you’ve convinced me that I need to actually read and study the Law of Moses, but how do I do it? You admitted that we don’t need to follow every part of the Law yesterday (like circumcision), so how do we apply it?
To answer that, we need to wrestle with an even touchier question: If we're not under the Law of Moses, then how do we relate to it as believers on this side of the Cross? Some parts of it most of us obviously don't follow anymore, like the holidays and animal sacrifices. Other parts, like the commandment to honor our parents, Paul repeated to believers (with the obvious assumption that we're under obligation to follow them). So what's the dividing line, and if all of it's relevant, then how do we apply stuff like the holidays, sacrifices, and laws which modern believers don't really follow anymore? In the case of some of the laws (like capital punishment for idolatry), most of us wouldn't want to implement even if we had the opportunity!
Throughout the millennia, Christian scholars and teachers have struggled with the question of how we relate to the books of Moses. The conventional wisdom is to separate the Law into 3 parts: 1) Moral laws, 2) Ceremonial laws, and 3) Civil laws. Moral laws, like against stealing, are for all believers for all times. Ceremonial laws, like the holidays and sacrifices, were symbolic foreshadows of the nature and work of Christ (e.g., the sacrifices foreshadow the cross, and the Aaronic priesthood foreshadows the work of our High Priest). And Civil laws, like those which give specific legal penalties for certain crimes, usually aren't seen as directly relevant to us as modern believers.
I'm not saying this interpretation is wrong at all. However, with all humility, I have to point out that this sharp distinction between civil law, moral law, and ceremonial law isn't really laid out in Scripture itself. And it can be kind of problematic when it comes to actually applying everything to our lives as modern believers: How can I apply stuff like passages regarding the Feast of Tabernacles? When I read stuff like the death penalty for homosexual behavior, how do I apply that today? I'm not saying that this paradigm can't provide answers on those questions, but it's a little tough to do so on some of it.
With all respect, let me see if I can provide an alternative, a slightly different lens for looking at this.
First, I think we can find a clue in correcting our translation. The first five books of the Bible have many names: the books of Moses, the Pentateuch (“five books”) and the Torah. Torah has been translated as “Law,” and I think that can lead to an error in our thinking on it. When you hear the word "law," you tend to think of a law passed by a government, usually complete with some type of legal penalty, like a fine or jail time. It might be used informally in the sense of "rules," but that's not all that different, right? The authority (whether it's government, or your parents, or God) says "You shall/shall not do X, and if you do X, here's the penalty."
But the word Torah can also be translated as “teaching,” and I think that’s a much better name for the first five books of the O.T. The best argument for this is the entire book of Genesis: Even though Genesis is in the first five books of the Bible, it’s mostly made up of narratives, not laws in the sense of rules and regulations. Since we still learn lessons from the narrative portions of Scripture, “teaching” seems a more appropriate name.
Why am I pointing this out? Because I submit that there's a use for God's word which you might not have considered before. If you've been a Christian for a while, you probably know to look for prophecies about Jesus and for foreshadows like the priesthood and sacrifices. You also probably know that one of the main purposes of the Law is to drive us to Christ by making us recognize God's standards and our need for a Savior.
But there's one aspect of the Torah which I think that believers tend to miss: One of the purposes of the Torah is to show us the heart of God: What he loves and hates, what’s more important to him and what's less important. As a corollary to this, the Torah is important to us as a guide to righteous living as modern believers this side of the cross.***
Now before you think I'm a Judaizer who wants to put us under the Law again, please hear me out.
Since the Torah is “teaching” instead of just rules, I think we can apply it best by distinguishing between principles and applications. Principles are timeless and eternal, and they don’t change any more than God does. Applications of these principles are almost always time-bound to some degree, especially as we change from the Old Covenant (or Old Testament) to the New Covenant in Christ.
For example, in Deut. 6:8-9 God told them to write down his word on their clothing and even “on the door frames of your houses and on your gates.” Have you ever noticed on a front door of a traditional Jewish house a symbol in Hebrew, which they kiss when they enter and leave? They're literally following this law. But for us as modern-day believers, are we disobeying God if we don't literally have Scripture printed on our door frame and our clothes? No. The principle is that we need to be reminded of his word every moment lest we forget and disobey it. We probably apply it differently than the ancient Hebrews and modern-day Jews. Maybe a good way to apply it is to have Bible verses printed on a 3X5 card and taped to my mirror. Or maybe I need to listen to audible readings of the Bible in my car.
This is how I study the Torah and apply it, assuming that the application isn't immediately obvious: 1) Prayerfully search out the principle behind the law or regulation or ceremony. To get to the principle, ask questions such as, “What does this reveal
about God’s value system?” “What does He care about, or not care about as much?”
“How can I align my priorities with His?” "What change do I need to
make in my life to apply this principle?" 2) Find a way to apply the principle behind the law in my personal setting. And of course, as always, the Holy Spirit is available to guide you into all truth.
If I want to love God, then shouldn’t I care about what he cares about?
Father, I want the same attitude as the Psalmist. How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth! Please make me a man after your own heart.
***I realize that this might seem a little controversial to some of my fellow believers who've been trained to look at an O.T. passage and only see how it directly relates to the person and work of Christ. If you have some trouble swallowing this, I think I've made a decent case for it, along with some further explication on it here and here.
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